TAMPA, FLA.—While Auston Matthews, Sidney Crosby and the rest of the big names in town were happy and having a good time at the NHL’s all-star weekend, it’s safe to say they were also pining for a trip they’re going to miss: one to the Olympics.
Though they’ve known for some time that the league had decided against shutting down for two weeks in February so that the best hockey players on the planet could participate in the Pyeongchang Winter Games, it wasn’t sitting well with the players who most likely would have been there.
“It’s pretty disappointing,” said Matthews, the Maple Leafs centre who almost surely would have been on Team USA. “Obviously to play in the Olympics would be a huge honour.”
Today’s NHL is rife with young stars, and it would have been the first time at the Olympics for the likes of Matthews, Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon (all at their second all-star games) as well as Jack Eichel and Zach Werenski (both at their first).
“It would have been fun,” said MacKinnon. “It would have been great to represent Canada. I love my country. I love competing.”
Article Continued Below
About a year ago, the league made an offer — which the players rejected — to commit to two Olympics, including Pyeongchang, as well as two World Cups if the players would agree to extend the collective agreement.
Donald Fehr, the executive director of the NHL Players’ Association, expressed no regrets about rejecting that offer.
“It’s regrettable we’re not there,” said Fehr. “People feel it as an individual loss. But in terms of that deal, the notion the athletes ought to (offer) contract concessions in order to go to the Games is a bit much, especially since you’re asking 80 per cent of the players who are not going to do it too.”
The future of international hockey was front and centre in NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s address to the media after a wide-ranging board of governors meeting. It was announced that:
- Edmonton and New Jersey will open next season in Sweden, while Winnipeg and Florida will play a regular-season game in November in Finland.
- Two planned pre-season games in China, believed to be between Calgary and Boston, appear to be on hold for further negotiating.
While Bettman trumpeted the ability to “share NHL hockey with our fans overseas” he seemed nonplussed about skipping the Olympics.
“The owners find the Olympics are very disruptive on our season,” said Bettman. “For that and a host of other reasons . . . it didn’t make sense for us for attend. Could that circumstance change at some point in the future? I suppose so, but it’s not currently something we’re contemplating.”
Crosby, the Penguins captain who scored the golden goal for Canada at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, says he’s coming to terms with missing out this time.
“It’s weird,” says Crosby. “Once you know you’re not going, you turn that off and don’t think about it. You become a fan and figure: ‘OK, am I going to be able to see some of these games?’ You want to support Canada and watch the games and see how they do. You kind of turn the page and follow like everyone else.”
While the players would love to be there, they’re at a loss to explain how they might convince the league to let them go next time, in 2022 in Beijing.
“The way things worked out this time is not the way to go about it,” said Crosby. “We’ve got some time to look at it. I’m sure a lot of guys would love to be a part of it. We’ve got to find a way to make it work.”
“A solution? That’s a good question,” said Islanders captain John Tavares. “At the end of the day, I think we all believe it’s the right thing for the game. You like to think everybody involved thinks it’s the right thing to do. I think it’s as simple as that.”
McDavid, MacKinnon, Eichel and Matthews played together on Team North America at the World Cup. They all grew up representing their countries at world junior events, giving them a taste for international hockey that they say won’t be made bitter by missing these Olympics.
“We’ll still be watching the Olympics,” said McDavid. “I’m looking forward to it. There are still so many good names on many teams. I look at the roster Canada was able to put together. It was still pretty good. You see some names and you’re taken aback by how many good players are playing that aren’t in the NHL.
“Hockey is such a big sport. There are so many good players around the world. It’s still going to be a good tournament.”